Waking Up in the ICU

Eight years ago I woke up in the ICU after three days of being sedated in a coma on a ventilator. The only memory I have was going to sleep on the surgery table, darkness, and a few seconds of the tube being extracted. In reality this story should be about how my adrenalectomy went terribly wrong and I could have died, but because I have no memory of any of that, all I have is my ICU experience. When the stories of COVID patients emerging from ventilators started hitting news feeds, I couldn’t help but pay attention. I had gone through all this so long ago and yet it still felt fresh in my mind. Last year in the midst of therapy I finally obtained the San Francisco General Hospital report, finally putting two and two together.

I remember the kind nurse who kept vigil over me. She had been recording each day, no change and good oxygen levels. From her point of view I had been under her care for three days now. She immediately shared what happened, eager to answer my questions and give me perspective. “Do you know what happened?” Of course! I had an adrenalectomy and I should be able to go home soon. The laparascopic had become open surgery. The right side of my abdomen ached, I opened my gown to see a large slash across my body from front to back. Metallic stitches precariously clung at the thick folds of skin.

She showed me a blood infusion bag, I had received nine packets or up to five liters of blood replacement. That would have been bad.

The strange thing is after this horrific revelation, I was calm. Somehow I reasoned that I couldn’t do anything about it. Getting angry would be pointless especially toward the nurse who had nothing to do with it. The strong IV drip of painkillers helped. I think I remember the surgeon checking in but not really exchanging words with me. I don’t think that would have been a good idea.

I probably got high off the oxygen cannula in my nose. It was so soothing and nice. I really wanted to adjust the bed and find a better position but keeping the wound steady was my main priority. The day went by, no hunger, just irritability. My family visited shortly in the ICU but quickly reasoned it was better to wait until I was a little better.

Then I was transferred to SF General’s “triage” basement because there weren’t rooms available for me to move to. I remember helping out maneuver the large ICU bed and the attendants being surprised how much strength I had. The many patients in triage were in various states of being on their way in and out. The hospital was under massive renovation at the time, so I figure the main room might be offline. Curtains were pulled and reconfigured depending on who was there.

I soon found out this triage room was chaotic. Here I am aching “in pain” and men and women were screaming about a wound or on drugs. The noise got so intense I thought I was being intentionally tortured and I cried out to the attending doctor to silence it. The ICU room was a luxury hotel compared to triage. I got ear plugs but listening to myself breathe ironically got to be too much. I became depressed and stopped trying to train my lungs to breathe again. The doctor turned the oxygen back up but warned me to keep breathing.

Being hooked up for days to an IV drip made me feel like a cyborg.

If anyone ever asks what it’s like to not be able to breathe, basically take a 1 second in and out breath through the chest only.

For the longest time the voices were droned out by a Cantonese auntie being prepared for surgery. I could see the doctor attending to her was also Chinese but she only spoke Mandarin. These were the early days of the Hong Kong anti-Mainland movement and I was incensed that she didn’t speak our language living in the Bay Area. The doctor called in the translator service, holding an iPhone on speaker phone between her, the auntie and two other doctors. It was kind of hilarious because the auntie asked why she didn’t speak Chinese. The doctor spoke to the translator and the translator tried her best to communicate medical speak. But it’s not the same! So much was kind of just inferred that this surgery is risky and just deal with it. After a while the auntie got tired of it and I laughed.

I remember having to re-explain my situation when new doctors came into take rounds. It was frustrating, isn’t there a record of all this? I guess medicine protects the patient by continually re-interpreting the situation so that the grapevine doesn’t dilute the information. By that time it was doctor number five, who knows what the previous ones wrote down.

Eventually I was moved to my “home” room where I spent two more days. This was a proper hospital room, shared with someone. My roommate was a middle-aged guy who wasn’t spending much time there, I think he had a wound or something. Eventually he was replaced by an elderly man who didn’t talk at all.

I was much more lucid by now and self-administering painkillers with the push of a button. The surgeon finally visited and basically talked over me. I didn’t have the energy to engage him the way I wanted to but I recognize he was trying to avoid a confrontation. I never actually called him up and regret that today. He’s still around but he hasn’t responded to emails. My endocrinologist who had been following the whole ordeal in real-time paid a great visit. He said he watched it go down and was terribly sorry. Really I owe the “cure” to him, getting surgery approved was difficult, regardless of the outcome.

My family again visited and this time it was everyone, mom, aunts, uncles, cousins, my sister. I don’t really remember what anyone said. Then my close SF friend came to say hi, the only one, and she was very brief but it was so endearing. She really didn’t need to come by. I’ll never forget that.

I learned to be humble in that room. As a 29 year old who thought he was was strong and intelligent, I could barely lift myself out of bed. After finally having my first meal, which tasted like nothing, I had a bowel movement all over the sheets. I was given a bed pan. Later the nurse who came to clean that out made a shrieking noise at the smell. I was so embarrassed and yet there was nothing I could do. I felt shamed and helpless. A very eccentric housekeeping staffer came to clean and wipe the walls down which added to the bizarre situation.

Yes the Bay Area has its own brand of milk.

Eventually I was given the go ahead to return home. I remember the moment I got into the wheelchair it was like the life was sucked out of me. I was exhausted and breathless. My heart raced every time I had a major change in position, causing me to worry if I was going to have a heart attack. The crammed construction catwalk was unpleasant but finally I was wheeled free into the pick-up roundabout. The feeling of the fogged over sun and wind was nourishing on my skin.

That was the end of my ICU and hospital stay journey. Of course it was the beginning of recovery which is another story. To this day really all I feel that summarizes the experience was the kindness of the ICU nurse, the first human I saw after what seemed like eternity. My stay was short, really a blip compared to coronavirus patients and I can only imagine the months to years it will take to get back to baseline. For a month I literally did not have proper breathing, and the muscles were all unbalanced for months after. I hope sharing this story gives someone peace of mind that they are not the only knows who have suffered and know that healing is a lifetime journey.

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